Cap Streeter

How a man stranded on a sandbar created Chicago's most expensive land.

Streeterville is Chicago’s expensive plot of real estate bounded by Michigan Avenue, Lake Michigan, and the Chicago River. The area is home to the Hancock Building and Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Exclusive hotels, like the Drake and Ritz-Carlton, provide the most luxurious rooms in the city. Four-star dining and sky-high (literally and figuratively) condos are in abundance.

And it all began as a landfill and a shanty-town.

George Wellington “Cap” Streeter hailed from Flint, Michigan. At various times he was a lumberjack, a circus performer, an ice cutter, a soldier, a logger, and a miner. In 1886, he and his second wife Maria “Ma” Mullholland decided to make their fortunes as gun runners in Honduras. They purchased and repaired a boat and christened it the “Reutan.” In typical Cap Streeter fashion this was a misspelling. Supposedly they wanted to name it after an island off the Honduras coast called Roatan, but potential gun runners can’t be expected to let a little thing like spelling slow them down.

Gale force winds, however, put a brake on their plans. Cap and Ma chose to test their boat on Lake Michigan when a storm took over. These intrepid weather-be-damned entrepreneurs ended up on a sandbar about 450 feet east of Michigan Avenue. Instead of digging out and continuing their expedition they chose to make the sandbar their new home and lived aboard the Reutan.

This was the perfect opportunity for Cap to make his mark. Fifteen years after the Chicago Fire, the city was in a building frenzy. Cap invited the contractors to use his sandbar as a dump (for a fee) and it eventually extended the shoreline to include 186 acres of new land. You can’t blame the contractors. It was convenient and Cap, of course, underbid legitimate dumps.

Not that Cap thought his province was illegitimate. He’d done his research, and according to an 1821 government survey the boundaries of Chicago and Illinois ended at the original shoreline. His landfill was therefore independent of both and he designated it the “District of Lake Michigan,” answerable only to the federal government. And, as a Civil War veteran, he claimed he was homesteading and this was by all rights his to keep.

As the self-proclaimed governor of his newly created district, Cap began selling parcels of land and a shantytown sprang up from the landfill. By this time Cap and Ma had erected a two story home to replace the Reutan as their headquarters. They lived on the second floor, complete with a retractable ladder, and the first floor was their “war room.”

Cap felt he needed a war room. Chicago ‘s wealthy entrepreneurs were not pleased to have a shantytown in the shadow of their exquisitely constructed mansions and businesses. They also decided a thoroughfare on this new land would greatly enhance its value by connecting the business district to the Gold Coast. (This thoroughfare was Lake Shore Drive.) So, they went to city officials and convinced them to sic the police on these squatters.

Several battles ensued for the District of Lake Michigan. Ma took care of one group by pouring boiling water on officers trying to arrest Cap. His tenants also fought to keep the District independent, rebuffing police on several occassions. Even though he was captured often, each time he was acquitted. Although at one point he was convicted of murder, he was pardoned by the Governor of Illinois who agreed that Cap had been framed. During his imprisonment Ma died.

Undaunted, Cap continued his campaign. His battles were now mainly fought in the courts as his opponents realized they couldn’t forcibly oust the man and his tenants. In 1918 he was arrested for selling liquor without a license and assault on a police officer. While he was in prison agents of Chicago Title and Trust Company burned his home and his third wife, Emma, ran at them with a meat cleaver (obviously Cap had a tendency to marry women with independence and tempers – who else could put up with him?).

Cap died, rather ignominiously, of pneumonia in 1921. Ironically the mayor of Chicago attended his funeral. Emma fought a campaign to ensure the District Of Lake Michigan would remain in her family and filed over 1500 complaints for compensation to no avail. Chicago and Cook County officials found a nice legal loophole to deny these claims. Since Cap’s first wife had run off with a vaudeville troupe (would you expect anything less?) they weren’t divorced, so Emma and Cap were never legally married and her claims were considered invalid.

Next time you visit the Hancock Building or view it’s criss-cross heights, keep in mind that it was built upon the shanty of a renegade. George Wellington Streeter was a scoundrel and an opportunist, but his eccentricities gave Chicagoans some of their most valued real estate.

And that, in a nutshell, describes the allure and enchantment of Chicago. What began as a sandbar is now the most profitable land in the city. Go figure.